By Tony Collins
However much the Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude talks about open government he cannot change a DWP culture rooted in introspection, defensiveness and a resentment of outsiders who want to know how it conducts itself.
“We are determined to turn the rhetoric of transparency into practical effect,” said Maude in a speech. “We know transparency helps root out corruption, exposes inefficiency, and highlights incompetence.”
The message has had little or no effect on the Department for Work and Pensions which is continuing to pour public money into the legal costs of keeping reports on Universal Credit secret.
This week Andrew Robertson, for the Treasury Solicitor, has written to the Information Tribunal to request permission to appeal a Tribunal’s ruling that four reports on the Universal Credit project be published.
In 2012, under the FOI Act, I had requested the UC Project Assessment Review. At around the same time John Slater, who has 25 years experience working in IT and programme and project management, had requested the UC Issues Register, Milestone Schedule and Risk Register.
The Information Commissioner ruled that the DWP could keep secret the Risk Register but should publish the other three reports.
Slater then appealed the ruling that the Risk Register not be disclosed – and won. The DWP appealed the Information Commissioner’s ruling that the other three should be published – and lost.
The “first-tier” Tribunal ruled last month that all four reports should be published.
Now the DWP has sought permission to appeal the Tribunal’s ruling. As part of its first appeal the DWP’s spent two days in Leicester at an Information Tribunal hearing. The DWP’s legal costs are unknown. It appears unlikely that the DWP has set any limit on the costs of its legal fight to keep the UC reports from being disclosed.
John Slater says in an email to me that the DWP and secretary of state Iain Duncan Smith will do anything within the law to avoid publishing the information he and I have requested. Slater said he would not be surprised if IDS uses the ministerial veto to try and prevent publication.
If the Information Tribunal grants the DWP’s request, its appeal will then go to what is called the Upper Tribunal.
Like an electronic birthday card that speaks the same message every time it is opened, the DWP says the same thing every time the Information Commissioner or the Information Tribunal rules that DWP reports on major IT-based projects and programmes should be published.
It doesn’t matter how many times the Commissioner dismisses the DWP’s arguments, the DWP will still argue that civil servants will not be completely candid in their reports if they know that their assessments of risks and problems will be disclosed.
It is unlikely that the DWP looks closely at the reports it is asked to disclose under FOI. More likely it decides to refuse the FOI request and then asks its lawyers to send the usual legal arguments to the requestor.
Clearly the DWP’s senior civil servants have a rigid mindset when defending the need for confidentiality – and it will probably always be so. They argue that the reports, if taken out of context by the media, will give the wrong impression.
The same civil servants don’t realise – or don’t care – that the same arguments were used by Parliamentarians centuries ago to stop the reporting of proceedings of the House of Commons.
Francis Maude has spent nearly four years trying to persuade the DWP and the rest of central government to be open and transparent. But perhaps he needs to have a word with the DWP minister for Universal Credit Lord Freud who has signed off refusals of FOI requests for UC reports.
As Maude says, openness and transparency expose inefficiency, waste and incompetence. Is this, subconsciously, why the DWP is so set against openness and transparency?